Thursday, November 13, 2008

Obama and the nuclear option

One of the ways in which popular movements achieve their goals is by exploiting divisions in the ruling class. One such may just rebound slightly to our advantage if elements of the US foreign policy elite move to return to pre-Bush disarmament procedures. Kate Hudson of CND points out in today's Morning Star that Obama's position on nuclear weapons is aligned to that of old right-wing 'realists' like Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, who favour a gradual disarmament process focused on bilateral agreements between the US and Russia. It's a grim moment when those two old blood-soaked war criminals represent the 'moderate' option on nuclear weapons, particularly since Kissinger was co-responsible for beefing up America's atomic diplomacy in the early 1970s in order to try to reverse America's declining leverage and help force North Vietnam and the NLF to accept Washington's peace terms. Yet, we have to reckon that this is indeed the situation, and those two figures have been joined in advocating such a process by William Perry and Sam Nunn, both utterly respectable specimens of the American foreign policy intelligentsia.

This is likely to be prompted by the perceived failure of the aggressive nuclear posture of the last eight years. The Bush gang systematically set about tearing up the existing structure of nuclear diplomacy from their first moments in government in 2001. Well before 9/11, one of their biggest foreign policy drives to abrogate the ABM treaty. They pressed for the development of new missile defense systems linked to 'first strike' doctrines, with China as the main target. All of this was very much a part of the PNAC doctrine of unleashing America's military might to re-order planetary arrangements and secure future US dominance. The Bush team fantasized about being co-equivalents to Theodore Roosevelt, Elihu Root, Henry Cabot Lodge, John Hay, and Alfred Thayer Mahan. Their strategy involved fast-forwarding a new array of missile defense shields that, once put in place, would be irreversible; engineering a 'revolution in military affairs' in order to enable America to convincingly and rapidly defeat enemies; and diversify existing bases and installations, the better to encircle rivals effectively. The Nuclear Posture Review in December 2001 placed particular emphasis on the development of a new nuclear deterrent which in turn had to result in the abrogation of the ABM Treaty, as well as the continued undermining of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

The published version of Rumsfeld's 'Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations' [pdf] highlighted the 'deterrence' value of a nuclear weapons system developed to capacities not seen since the Cold War. Specifically, it would "influence potential adversaries to withhold actions intended to harm US’ national interests". But it would also enable the US to "decisively" defeat adversaries "if deterrence fails". This document is quite explicit in stating that the US anticipates the physical destruction of civilian life, and only intends to ensure that such destruction is not "disproportionate" to "the concrete and direct military advantage expected to be gained." This is not necessarily new. The US has repeatedly threatened the use of nuclear strikes against enemies, as Joseph Gerson's Empire And The Bomb shows in some detail. And, lest the novelty of the Bush doctrine be over-stated, it is worth pointing out that it was really an extreme variation on traditional strategy, and that the Clinton administration had worked hard to develop more advanced nuclear weaponry and elaborated its own doctrine, The Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence, which expressed a commitment to terrorising potential opponents with the prospect of massive nuclear retaliation should they act in such a way as to seriously harm US interests.

Clearly, the Bush administration's entire strategy for securing future domination failed, and that failure was made abundantly apparent during Russia's assertiveness over South Ossetia. But is it realistic to expect the US to scale back its nuclear ambitions given the stupendous advantages that such weapons systems offer? Is it not more likely that realpolitikers favour the more effective management of the nuclear system, in order to prevent geopolitical rivals gaining possession of the requisite technologies? And is the US foreign policy establishment really about to turn against the 'missile defense shield'? Obama has cautiously supported the idea of such a shielf if the technology can be developed, but has been ambiguous to the point of obscurity about whether that means he supports the one being developed under the rubric of Bush's National Security Presidential Directive 23. When the Polish President Lech Kaczynski claimed on his website that Obama had assured him of his commitment to the shield, Obama's advisor was sent out immediately to repudiate the claim. It looks as if the Obama-Biden team is temporising by adhering to the 'when-the-technology-is-ready' argument for, despite confident claims about the workability of the technology, the Bush administration had to press ahead with it against a background of constant technological failure. The trouble is that if Obama seriously intends to engage in sustained bilateral agreements with Russia, then he can't also engage in a policy that the Russian ruling class won't stand for (because they know it is aimed at them). Medvedev has already sent some hard signals on this issue, threatening retaliatory measures and offering to withdraw them if the US backs off. Obama has indicated that he will not pursue any policy or diplomacy that weakens America's image. He is determined to be even more aggressive than the Bush administration has been in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He publicly supports Ukraine and Georgia's claim for admission to NATO. So, while the Obama executive may wish to forge a slightly more productive relationship with Russia, the belligerent programme that it is committed to substantially undermines this.